Students enrolled at education institutions offering instruction in the digital arts, particularly art, animation, and modeling, graduate with the expectation of being prepared for the next step in their life: the start of a career in the industry. The unspoken arrangement is that students work hard, and schools provide the necessary instruction and guidance to prepare them for that journey.
Schools teach students how to capitalize on their creativity. They learn the nuts and bolts of their craft, whether that’s modeling, texturing, lighting, compositing, animation, rigging, or a related skill. They are taught storytelling principles. And, they are shown how to combine those skills into a final product.
Indeed, there are a plethora of concepts that animation students today need to learn in order to secure a job in their respective field, and schools are committed to ensuring that students have those skills and knowledge. Nevertheless, there are areas – some tangible, some not so much – in which students often are lacking when it comes to a solid, well-rounded education that will lead to future success. These are issues that seem to touch many students at many schools, and are not confined to a particular institution.
Marilynn “Max” Almy, dean of Savannah College of Art and Design’s (SCAD’s) School of Digital Media, observes that, in general, students are new to academic rigor. “Their lack of experience about what it takes to succeed in the industry and in their careers may be evident. However, they make up for that in time, with preparation and experience, to launch their careers,” she says.
SCAD tries to remedy this problem by providing real-world experiences for its students. “The students work on real projects with the demands and timetables of working with real clients. They often work in teams, where they learn to communicate effectively and collaborate collectively,” Almy points out.
Moreover, SCAD has many career advisors who make sure that students are fully prepared with career training, great portfolios, websites, and resumes, and then help usher them into exciting internships and jobs at major companies.
Derek Flood, associate director of visual effects for Academy of Art University’s Animation and Visual Effects Education, agrees that real-world experience is a necessity. He believes that students coming straight out of school often lack the practical real-world experience to handle demands of a production, including the ability to work on a team and under a deadline.
“For this reason, we have developed what we call ‘StudioX,’ which are a series of advanced-level classes that emulate a production environment, but are faculty-mentored,” Flood says. In these classes, students work on actual shows, with real deadlines, and encounter real problems and challenges that surface during the course of making a film. Here, the students learn how to work together as a team, how to work well under pressure, and how to creatively solve problems.
“The work that comes out of these classes speaks for itself. But beyond that,” Flood says, “the experience the students gain in these StudioX classes (where the X stands for experience) has been tremendously important in preparing them to be ready to transition from school into a studio job.”
Pete Bandstra, program director of 3D Arts at Full Sail University, says there are three main factors all students need in order to be successful: the ability to work with others, a strong portfolio, and a strong work ethic. The latter, he says, can carry an individual a long way in life and make them a valuable asset to any production house.
Imagination and Process
While all the schools interviewed here acknowledge the importance of teamwork and real-world structure, others maintain that process is of utmost importance, too. Jazno Francoeur, program director, Bachelor of Fine Arts in Digital Art and Animation at DigiPen, is one of them.
When asked what students today seem to be lacking in terms of their education at any given school, Francoeur responds, “That is a difficult question, as the answer will vary greatly depending on the type of student and institution. For instance, many vocational/tech schools will only instruct a student in the nuts and bolts of a craft, but will not provide a varied curriculum with general education classes germane to their passion, nor will there be continuity between courses.”
Any art/animation program worth its salt, according to Francoeur, will have a serious foundation that addresses skills such as perspective and anatomy, as every traditional discipline can be extrapolated to the digital world. “For instance, if we note that our students are struggling with 3D lighting, the initial remedy is not to double up on the technical issues with the software, but to look further upstream in the foundation year and address the problem as it relates to hand skills and theory.”
As Francoeur points out, the hardest thing to teach is process, since technical knowledge is readily accessible online – many companies, such as Auto-desk, have granular tutorials available for free, which means that anyone who is self-motivated can learn the interface and functionality of a program. “This is why we are software agnostic at DigiPen and do not put faith in the tool insomuch as using the tool.”
Process, as DigiPen sees it, entails a few specific areas: investigation (relevant and actionable research), inspiration (how to iterate thumb-nailing and sketching based on that research), execution (how those designs evolve into polished, professional assets), and innovation (the added value that makes the work uniquely appealing or technologically groundbreaking).
“It’s not uncommon for new artists to underestimate the importance of the first two categories, as they are eager to jump straight into the software. Again, any reputable school will build their curriculum with a strong foundation and process in mind,” Francoeur says.
Also vital is the ability to take risks. “I always push the importance of a positive attitude and a fearless confidence in taking on the unknown. Most students like to stay with known quantities, but that’s the opposite of innovation,” says Mark Henne, program director of DigiPen’s MFA program in Digital Arts. “Students need to learn that there is no wasted knowledge. It all adds up toward creating as whole. And the question of ‘Why do I have to learn this?’ is reflective of not understanding how subjects are interrelated. Having this attitude [of risk taking] is important because that’s what will keep them interested and creating new things. In the working world, those with this quality are the ones who find opportunity.”
Bobby Beck, CEO and cofounder of the online animation school Animation Mentor, believes that imagination is often missing in most student work. “When you give an assignment like [animating] a heavy lift, you tend to see the same heave lift of a box over and over. What we try to teach our students is there are a million ways to show this,” he says. “Show us, and the recruiters, something new, fresh, and exciting. Of course, it has to be executed well, too, but imagination is key, and having unique ideas will make you an incredibly sought-after animator.”
Gnomon Director of Education Max Dayan stresses the importance of problem-solving and pushing one’s self. “It’s hard to generalize all students, but problem-solving skills are extremely crucial to student success. Individuals who can research solutions, formulate, and test different strategies not only see better results in their work, but also build their confidence,” he says. “I think in order to stand out, you have to push your work beyond ‘done.’ The last 1 percent is the hardest part of any animation, but it’s the difference between good and amazing.”
Colin Giles, head of Animation and VFX at Vancouver Film School, agrees on the importance of problem-solving. “The most important tool we can prepare our students with is problem-solving. No matter the rapid changes in technology or communication, the greatest value a student can offer a prospective employer is their ability to think critically in the workplace,” he says. “This prepares [them] for a career as opposed to simply a job.”
Just as important, maintains Mauricio Hoffman, animation instructor at Gnomon, is the need for animators to not just “do,” but also to “observe.” As he explains, motion, visual storytelling, and thought processes are hard things to study because of their ephemeral nature, and because of that, there is a need to really study motion before attempting to interpret it through animation.
“A common mistake is to think that the animation process happens exclusively in the computer, with posing characters or saving keyframes,” says Hoffman.
To this end, Gnomon places a good deal of emphasis on the pre-planning of scenes, gathering and observing reference, and understanding the scene and its characters, even before a single keyframe is set. “Computers and software will always evolve, and new animation techniques may be developed, but the one thing that will stay relevant is the need for observation and understanding motion, visual storytelling, and thought processes,” he iterates.
BY CHARBEL KAMAR, FULL SAIL
BY TODD ALBERDA, DIGIPEN
BY CAMILO CASTRO, RINGLING
BY MELODY WANG, SHERIDAN
The B Side
Many student artists and animators want to see their craft solely as an art form. And, indeed, it is an art form. But, to overlook the fact that it is also a business is a big mistake.
Ronni Rosenberg, dean, Faculty of Animation, Arts, and Design at Sheridan College, stresses that students should understand the structure of the particular branch of the animation business they are working in. They can set about doing so by asking questions, such as, Who finances the production? Why are they asking for specific things to be included in the production? What audience are they trying to reach? How does the project earn money, and how is that money divvied up among various partners?
Jim McCampbell, Computer Animation education head at Ringling College of Art and Design, agrees with that assessment. “Many students don’t pay close enough attention to the business world. Money drives the animated feature-film industry, and students need to track current events in order to align their skills with current and future industry needs,” he says. “This is an important aspect to remaining relevant and marketable in today’s world.”
This might not be easy, but it is important.
Students, especially art students, are definitely challenged on the business considerations of being a professional artist, according to Justin Zurrow, adjunct professor, Computer Art at SVA (School of Visual Arts).
“Learning how to network, negotiate a contract, and manage finances are just a few business skills that can give a newly graduated artist the advantage in the early stages of their career. Nothing replaces experience, but starting a career is difficult, and artists are expected to know more about business than most schools have the time to teach,” Zurrow says. “At SVA Computer Art, we require all graduating students to take a class called Business of Being an Artist. Within this curriculum, we discuss as many aspects of working professionally that we can. Topics include freelance vs. staff employment, contracts, labor practices, and investment and healthcare options. We encourage our students to take an entrepreneurial approach to their careers.”
The Next Step
Students have their hands full learning the A, B, Cs of their craft. However, there is so much more they need to master before they embark on a career. Employers are looking for craftspeople who can model and animate. But, that is just half of the equation.
BY MATT CERINI, SVA
Artists and animators work as a group. If you lack the proper interpersonal skills, chances are there is an artist with the same skill set who can thrive in a group environment. Guess which person will get the job?
However, as Rosenberg, McCampbell, and Zurrow note, it is important for those new to the industry to truly understand the business behind the art. If they do so, they will find themselves happier and more satisfied with their career choice.
Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.